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Overcoming Regulatory Roadblocks to Aquaculture in the United States

By Claire Forgey-Jahn

Despite decades of trying to advance the US aquaculture industry with a streamlined regulatory framework, US aquaculture production remains lagging, but there is hope for a brighter future ahead.

Image: Source: FAO FishStat

The National Aquaculture Act of 1980 was intended to provide support to private aquaculture and establish a national development plan. It created an interagency aquaculture coordinating group, the Joint Subcommittee on Aquaculture, comprised of representatives of 12 federal agencies. Its goal is to increase the effectiveness of aquaculture research and assistance programs. Since the National Aquaculture Act of 1980, little federal action has ensued and regulatory disarray has persisted, leaving the aquaculture industry lacking a clear, comprehensive structure (Goldstein & Carter , 2019). The majority of aquaculture legislation is made up of pre-existing regulations, such as protective acts- the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act for instance. There is a lack of unifying and consistent management plans that directly relate to aquaculture, which can make it difficult to navigate through the industry. Currently, there are six leading federal agencies with the jurisdiction to regulate different aspects of aquaculture while coordinating with one another. Because there are six main agencies that regulate aquaculture, the outcomes can be unpredictable even though there is some level of coordination between them. Along with this, some of the existing legislation has caused confusion. For instance, the Magnuson-Stevens Act gives the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) the authority to oversee fishery management in federal waters. However, in 2018 NOAA faced litigation over their authority to permit aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico. The judge ruled that the word “harvest” had been misinterpreted and that NOAA’s authority lies only within wild fish harvest, not large-scale aquaculture harvest.

Here is a breakdown of the current regulatory space:

  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in charge of food safety and developing and approving drugs to treat fish disease. For all aquaculture drugs, a drug company must research the environmental effects of the drug and submit an animal drug application to the FDA for approval. If the FDA finds that the drug may cause environmental impact, they are tasked with writing an Environmental Impact Statement.

  • The Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is in charge of authorizing construction and monitoring aquaculture facilities in navigable US waters.

  • The Department of Agriculture (USDA) acts as the lead coordinating agency. The USDA helps to monitor and maintain the aquaculture industry by conducting regular analysis. A group within the USDA, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, provides funding and guidance for aquaculture research and development with the goal of improving aquaculture efficiency and sustainability.

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in charge of issuing permits to ensure all environmental safety precautions are in place. For instance, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits guarantee that fish farms are not emitting excess pollutants or waste into the surrounding environment.

  • The Fish and Wildlife Service monitors the health of seafood exported from the US, and coordinates with private aquaculture to prevent and control the spread of disease. The FWS works with agencies such as the USDA and NOAA to determine how the roles of agencies will best meet the needs of the growing aquaculture industry.

The regulatory structure detailed by the National Aquaculture act of 1980- coordination between 12 federal agencies- still persists today. The most recent federal action to modify the regulatory setup in an effort to streamline federal permitting, thereby reducing barriers to entry for US aquaculture, was in May 2020. Executive Order 13921 designated NOAA as the lead agency to oversee aquaculture environmental review and authorization. Along with this, NOAA is now drafting new national aquaculture development plans and will designate 10 Aquaculture Opportunity Areas in US waters by 2025. Two regions have already been selected to host Aquaculture Opportunity Areas- one offshore of southern California and the other in the Gulf of Mexico. Considering spatial analysis data and public interest, NOAA landed on these regions for potential sustainable aquaculture. NOAA is also preparing a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for the Pacific Islands region to gauge the effects of aquaculture. It is expected that the introduction of Aquaculture Opportunity Areas will simplify the development process by speeding up permit review.

These six federal agencies are not the only bodies of authority in the aquaculture industry- it is also regulated at the state level. This means that a project must comply with the regulations set by federal agencies and state agencies if it is less than 3 nautical miles offshore. These state-level regulations oftentimes have a very direct impact on aquaculture operations, and this leads to contrasting development requirements throughout different regions in the US.

My internship will explore the science and policy roadblocks to the expansion of US aquaculture through case studies and hearing from those working in the industry- I look forward to sharing what I have learned later this year!


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